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Airport Commission gives OK for talks on $40 million Fort Smith schools project

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Plans for a new $40 million events complex for Fort Smith Public Schools took another step forward Tuesday (May 27) with the Fort Smith Regional Airport Commission giving the green light for the airport to move forward with negotiations with the district to use airport property as the site for the 33.2 acre project.

The airport commission's motion does not approve any contracts with the district, but allows the airport to open the door to a deal with the district and continues work with the Federal Aviation Administration as the airport attempts to gain FAA approval for the project, which will include a fine arts center and a sports arena.

The Fort Smith School Board already approved a tentative deal with the airport, which would have the district leasing the land for the events complex for 50 years at a rate of $7,000 per month, or $84,000 per year. The rate would increase by 3% every 10 years. Fort Smith Regional Airport Executive Director John Parker said he believes the terms voted on by the school board would hold true once a final contract is drafted.

"I think that those terms are very viable with a procedure that we go through to value these particular parcels to stay within our grant assurances. So I don't think we're very far off. Closer coordination needs to be done with the FAA to bring this process further forward,” Parker said Tuesday night.

Even if the FAA ultimately approves construction of the proposed events center, the one hurdle yet to be overcome is a vote for a millage increase to pay for the events center, as well as a third Fort Smith high school, which would be built at Chaffee Crossing barring any change to the current plan. The district has not said how much of a millage increase would be needed or requested to fully fund both projects, which could surpass $100 million including the $65 million high school.

In addition to the motion moving forward with the events complex, the Commission also voted to ban electronic cigarettes inside the terminal building. According to Parker, eCigs have been a point of confusion for passengers for the last few years.

"We have had some exposure to this particular item in the terminal building and it's caused some confusion in the past with the appearance of smoking in a no-smoking environment. It caused some consternation on the parts of passengers."

Parker said eCigs had the potential to not only cause confusion among passengers, but there was also "the potential for this to start occurring in office space within our terminal building."

While researching whether to request a ban on eCigs, Parker said the Arkansas Department of Health issued a memo warning of the dangers of electronic cigarettes and so-called vaping. Reading from an ADH advisory, Parker said the public health concerns listed include pollutants that cause emissions that could be a health concern for both users and second-hand smokers.

"Based on this particular document that was sent to us, issued by the state of Arkansas Department of Health on May 6, we felt it important to kind of clear up how the commission would view eCigarettes within the confines of our terminal building, whether it be in offices or in the waiting areas or secure areas of our building."

Parker also noted that several states have banned eCigs in public buildings.

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With the ban now in place, new signage will be placed throughout the terminal that lets passengers, guests and staff know that not only is traditional smoking banned within the terminal building, but so is vaping and the use of eCigarettes.

In other business, the Commission:
• Approved a motion to enter into negotiations with TAC Air regarding extension of its lease at the airport. The company had sought to waive an automatic rent increase of 18% set to go into affect Oct. 1, and instead replace it with annual rent increases of 3% for five years;
• Approved a request for a utility easement along three locations on land owned by the airport on Highway 45;
• Approved a contract with Fort Smith Structural to replace the terminal's roof ice guards that were damaged in the December 2013 ice storm. FEMA has approved an 85% reimbursement at a cost of $5,131 for the project;
• Approved awarding a construction bid to Forsgren for construction of phase three of the Taxiway A West project. The approval was for a contract of $4.636 million with a deductive alternate of $3.741 million; and
• Approved awarding a contract in the amount of $134,140 to Crawford Construction to locate utilities at the hotel construction site at Phoenix Avenue and McKinnon Boulevard.

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